Category Archives: State of the Tentacle

State of the Tentacle: Kenneth Hite

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Four the eighth installment of the “State of the Tentacle” interview series we have the rare privilege of welcoming to our non-Euclidean temple one of the most accomplished writer/game designer in the tabletop roleplaying industry, Kenneth Hite. While it is true that he fought desperately to escape from our musty gothic belfry before darkness fell upon our Shining Trapezohedron® his efforts were ultimately thwarted by the simple expediency of us having tied his shoelaces together while he was unconscious … or some other blatantly implausable plot device from the pulps 🙂

Introduction

Kenneth has written and designed an insanely large number of game books for an insanely diverse array of roleplaying games. Only some of those books have themselves been insane … but insane in a very, very good way. I am not even going to attempt to summarize his 20 years of game writing in the space we have here, but if you are interested in reading more you can check out the database of Kenneth’s design credits over on RPG Geek (but be warned, it is split over *11 pages* of entries).

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In the worlds of Cthulhu gaming, Kenneth is no slouch either. By metrics that man-was-not-meant-to-understand, he is credited as the author of:

about the Cthulhu Mythos.

For many years he wrote a much-loved column called “Suppressed Transmissions” for Pyramid magazine in which he brought his formidable knowledge of history, folklore and weird-science to bear on the tasks facing Gamemasters in producing new and interesting environments for their games. Although not specifically written with Lovecraftian games in mind, these articles frequently were peppered (and sometimes more than peppered) with a veritable goldmine of crunchy and usable ideas which an imaginative Cthulhu Keeper could use to spawn a whole series of games. Fortunately for those of us who don’t subscribe to Pyramid Magazine, Steve Jackson Games published two collections of the best articles from this long-running column — Suppressed Transmissions: the First Broadcast and Suppressed Transmissions: the Second Broadcast.

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Besides all that, he also currently writes the “Lost in Lovecraft” column in Weird Tales magazine, and has also written 70 or so books and games that barely touch on Cthulhu at all. He blogs at http://princeofcairo.livejournal.com.

In November, 2012 Pelgrane announced that they had successfully wooed Kenneth to take up a full time position heading up the Trail of Cthulhu line and also writing more support material for his vampire spy thriller game Night’s Black Agents.

In the real world Kenneth lives in Chicago with two Lovecraftian cats and one non-Lovecraftian wife.

Cthulhu Reborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Kenneth: The greatest milestone remains the first: Sandy Petersen’s seminal, path-breaking, elegant, incisive design of Call of Cthulhu. Without Sandy’s design, Lovecraftian roleplaying would have been stillborn – can you imagine a Lovecraftian game descended from the Deities & Demigods write-ups? After that, comes the general slow revolution and pioneering of scenario design work, from the “deadly sandbox” of Larry DiTillio and Lynn Willis’ Masks of Nyarlathotep to the still-underutilized “troupe of meatshields” model of Keith Herber and Kevin Ross’ Escape From Innsmouth to the recent “Purist-style” existential suicides of Graham Walmsley’s Lake District cycle. The other seminal milestone along the path was John Tynes, Scott Glancy, and Dennis Detwiller’s Delta Green, which demonstrated how much other modern horror (conspiracies and body horror specifically) could be super-charged with the Mythos in gaming, and showed how to do it masterfully. Nobody’s had the balls to really do that outright for another horror genre, although Eclipse Phase gets close in places and there are a number of more or less adequate “space Lovecraft” games now. Tynes, Glancy, and Detwiller also potentially revolutionized setting description (not just for the Mythos but for all RPGs) in their half of the d20 Call of Cthulhu project.

In straight game-design terms, I think I tried to do justice to Robin Laws’ brilliant reconceptualization of the investigation and mystery genres in my Trail of Cthulhu for Robin’s GUMSHOE engine. Maybe my splitting of Sanity from Stability is worth noting, too. Robert MacLoughlin’s Cthulhu Live is apparently an underrated design; I’m not a LARPer, but my friends who are praise it. Although I differed with many of Monte Cook’s specific decisions, his d20 Call of Cthulhu rules did about as well as anything could to bolt level-and-XP gaming onto the Mythos, and opened up a lot of possibilities in quasi-Mythos settings like Freeport and the Scarred Lands. Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa is another approach to that blend, which shows great promise. I have similar hopes for Sean Preston’s tremulus, which should complete our riffing Cthulhu gaming off the 1970s at last while pointing the way to more design options for the future.

Mis-steps – like I said up above, we avoided the biggest one when Chaosium, not TSR, did the first Lovecraft RPG. We all wish Chaosium hadn’t nearly drowned itself in debt, and could have kept as close an eye on their premiere product line as it deserved, but that’s not really a mis-step on the evolutionary path of Lovecraftian roleplaying. I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been an A-list designer in the new generation try a Lovecraftian story game from the ground up: I’m talking Luke Crane, Vincent Baker, Paul Czege, Emily Care Boss or someone of their calibre and vintage. (Ron Edwards did a terrific “Northwest Smith” RPG in S/Lay w/Me, but that doesn’t quite count as Lovecraftian; Michael Oracz’ De Profundis was terrific but seems to have sunk without a trace.) But again, a step not (yet?) taken isn’t a mis-step either. Sharks haven’t evolved much for 90 million years, but they’ll still chomp your arm off.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Kenneth: The single biggest thing that this mini-industry is doing well is yet another thing Chaosium is doing well: by relaxing the terms for their license, they allow a hundred game-design flowers to bloom. However, just like the first bloom of the d20 license, sott-cthulhu-flowerthe gardeners seem fairly timid. Right now, the vast majority of these products seem to be mostly in the “what we always wanted Chaosium to do” realm – Cthulhu in WW2, licensing other Mythos writers like Charlie Stross, Cthulhu with giant robots, etc. – or the “Chaosium’s game now in another rules set” realm rather than trying to think about what will make Lovecraftian roleplaying compelling going forward into the new millennium.

I should emphasize that my work on Trail of Cthulhu partakes of both those conservative flavors: I’m developing books I always wanted Chaosium to do (Bibliophile Cthulhu! Thirties Cthulhu!), using Robin’s GUMSHOE rules set. To the extent that “the mini-industry” is holding back, so am I. And I hope that example indicates that, like Lovecraft, I don’t see anything wrong with conservatism in design! Jason Durall and Gareth Hanrahan’s Laundry RPG, for example, is excellent, and has some of the best adventures ever written for Lovecraftian RPGs, but it’s nobody’s idea of cutting edge.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Kenneth: In addition to Chaosium’s generous (and apparently wise) licensing decision I mention above, the other main factor shaping Lovecraftian RPGs – like it shapes the rest of the RPG design space – is Kickstarter, and crowdfunding in general. This, I think, tends to reinforce those two conservative trends I mentioned before: it’s always easier to get people’s money for the loved and familiar.

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I’d like to say that the indie half of the current Golden Age of RPG design was influencing the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs, but tremulus and Graham Walmsley’s interestingly minimalist Cthulhu Dark aside, it really doesn’t seem to be doing so (although Cynthia Celeste Miller’s Dread-influenced Macabre Tales is another example). Right now, it’s new design ideas from “trad” designers (especially Robin Laws, but I suspect Monte’s d20 Call of Cthulhu rules are more influential than people think) that seem to be moving the needle, to the extent it’s moving.

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Kenneth: The main challenge to Lovecraftian RPGs is the same as the challenge to RPGs (and perhaps all publishing and broadcasting) in general: how to continue the transition from a mass entertainment model (albeit a smaller one, in our case) to a craft entertainment model. sott-funded-with-kickstarterAs retail continues to deform under Internet competition, and as the old ways of distribution continue to collapse, the economic assumptions of publishers, designers, and gamers all come under real strain. At some point, the architecture will exist to allow point-to-point sale by creators of creative goods to anyone in the world, but whether that architecture will support a “game line” or even an RPG in the fashion we grew up on is another question. Tabletop RPGs, of course, also face increased niche competition (for free time even more than for dollars) from electronic games of all sorts, although virtual “tabletop” platforms mitigate this to some extent.

This, of course, is aside from the generational lag that’s (to one or another level) hobbling all the advanced economies in the world. If we can get folks in India and Africa reading Lovecraft (not an easy sale, I admit), or get RPGs into retirement communities, maybe we can dodge that bullet for another decade or two.

The other potential big obstacle in the road would be someone with deeper pockets closing off Cthulhu at the tap. While H.P. Lovecraft’s work is public domain, there’s enough shadows and fog there that a Disney or Time Warner (or even a farcical “Lovecraft estate”) could make it impossible to publish Cthulhu mythos work. Trademark abuse could strangle us – the core tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are both clearly in the public domain, but just try to market something with the word “Tarzan” or “Conan” in the title and see how far you get. Right now, someone is suing the Conan Doyle estate over their claim of exclusive rights to a character invented in 1886! Multinational IP law reform is clearly needed, and is just as clearly not happening any time soon.

Finally, just as Chaosium’s two good decisions have created and fertilized the Lovecraftian RPG scene, a bad Chaosium decision that forks or breaks the audience of Call of Cthulhu could hurt it. The mooted 7th edition of the rules will mark the biggest change to Sandy’s original design ever; even if the new design is a good one, faulty marketing or licensing decisions around it could badly damage our tentacled little market segment. You only have to look at the slipshod way Wizards handled the 3.5e to 4e D&D transition to see what’s at stake, and Chaosium has less running room (and starts with fewer advantages) than Wizards did.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Kenneth: To some extent, it is up to me, in that I’ll be writing (and possibly commissioning) more books for Trail of Cthulhu and co-writing the upcoming Delta Green RPG. So apparently, what I’d like to see is more historically informed setting and adventure material that inspires and terrifies gamers while being accessible to them, and a Delta Green that feels like part of the 21st century’s politics, economics, and horror.

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Aside from that, I’d really like to see more top-flight indie designers take on Lovecraft’s original fiction and mythology from the ground up. It’s understandable to feel like you’ll always be in Sandy Petersen’s shadow, but people kept writing plays after Shakespeare.

CR:Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

sott-fiascoKenneth: I think the most likely future in almost any context is “more of the same.” Real change isn’t very common, and we’re still in the middle of our era’s real change, the Web-shifted economy. The changes to the RPG hobby and industry because of that macro-change will swamp any artistic turns unless a real bolt-of-lightning game like Fiasco reshapes the design field. For example, if a next-generation (modular-encounter, idiot-proof) virtual tabletop gaming platform really takes off and dominates the hobby, its Cthulhoid skin is likely to be more influential than any dead-tree product. If I’m lucky, they’ll hire me to work on it.

I imagine in five years there will be at least five more really great Lovecraftian RPG books, if none quite on a par with Masks of Nyarlathotep. I can confidently predict that the new Delta Green RPG will be one of them. Hopefully another of them will be by me. One or two A-list indie designers might create Lovecraftian story games – I’m surprised, as I say, that this hasn’t already happened. There will be a lot of forgettable, conventional-minded dross, most of which (thanks mainly to legacy structure from Lynn Willis and Keith Herber) will nonetheless have playable adventures. Kickstarter will be as normal as PDF sales are now; just a way most people do business.

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Here’s my wild prediction: At least one new-generation horror writer will try to increase mind-share and brand awareness by offering an open license (for tabletop, anyhow) to her portion of the Cthulhu mythos; the success of that scheme will depend on how good a writer she is and on how good her tabletop partners are.

CR: Thanks Kenneth … Are you willing to come back and answer some follow-up questions later on?

Kenneth: OK.

[ If you would like to contribute any follow-up questions for Kenneth, leave a comment or below or PM them to user “dce” on either Yog-Sothoth.com or rpg.net ]


A Second Lash at: Graham Walmsley

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When we interviewed Graham Walmsley (of Trail of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark and Stealing Cthulhu fame) a couple of weeks back, he had lots of intriguing and thought-provoking things to say about Lovecraftian gaming. He also had a wealth of well-considered things to say about publishing, and in particular small-press or self-publication of gaming material. We thought it would be great to get Graham back to answer another couple of questions about the intersection of these two topics … publishing Lovecraftian stuff.

Here’s what happened.

CR: Knowing Lovecraftian gamers, I would imagine that many readers would have, at one time or another, given thought to self-publication of their own-written material. As someone who has been more successful than most in establishing their own small press, what do you think are the key challenges to making a self-published book a success? Is it different for PDF publishing vs print publishing?

There are the practical things: playtesting, layout, art, printing. But those are fairly simple. (And, if people are looking to get started, I’m always happy to talk people through the process. I’d love to see more self-publishing.)

But the difficult part is finding an audience. What you must do, here, is engage with people: go to conventions, run your scenarios for people, get them excited about your stuff. Until you’ve got that excitement, you’re sunk.

Too many people write something on their own, then hope they can find an audience for it. That’s all wrong. You need to be engaging with people from the start.

CR: In talking about publishers engaging better with what’s happening with their games at the grassroots level, do you have any thoughts about ways in which companies can better tap into this (largely underutilized) source of product inspiration?

It’s funny. I rarely see publishers playing games at conventions. I genuinely don’t understand it. How can you find out what’s going on if you don’t play? So that’s the first thing: I think they should play more.

I’d also like to see projects originating from writers. When I’ve worked for larger companies, what has often happened is: they give me a brief and a word limit. I then write whatever they ask me to write. I’d like to see writers proposing projects.

And, to be fair, I’ve seen that happen, but I’d like to see more of it. There are such talented writers out there, with such amazing ideas. I’d love them to have more of a free rein.

CR: Well thanks for that, Graham … I guess we had better send the shoggoth off to catch some other poor unfortunate! You are free to go (but watch the Hound of Tindalos on your way out).


State of the Tentacle: Cynthia Celeste Miller

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When we kicked off the “State of the Tentacle” interviews, we deliberately cast a fairly wide net in relation to the types of Lovecraftian roleplaying games that were up for discussion. We didn’t just want it to be a discussion about where things are at with Call of Cthulhu — Lovecraftian gaming moved beyond the confines of just a single game some time back (when most of us weren’t looking!). There are now a whole variety of ideas out there about how the elusive yet enticing prose of Lovecraft can be translated to the gaming table, and ideally we would like these interviews to take in ALL of those different perspectives.

Introduction

Today’s guest interviewee, Cynthia Celeste Miller, is the creative force behind one of the more established of the “new crop” of Lovecraftian RPGs, Macabre Tales. Cynthia is the president of Spectrum Games, a company known specifically for faithfully emulating various genres with their game rules.

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For folks who have not dipped their toes to test the Macabre Tales water (and you really should) … it represents quite a different take on Lovecraftian gaming than either of the two major games, Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. For starters it prides itself not on being a “Cthulhu Mythos game”, but a “Lovecraft game” :sott-macabre-preview3 that means that a lot of the weird and wonderful (and sometimes slightly dubious) additions to the Lovecraft universe made by later authors such as August Derleth and Brian Lumley are simply not part of the game. In style it is a narrative-driven game (rather than a simulation-driven one) and it is specifically tailored to being run by a Keeper for a solo Investigator. Indeed, the default rules for the game assume there is only one player … the rationale being that almost all of Lovecraft’s stories feature a central narrator or character (who foolishly investigates things that man was not meant to know). But if you want to run Macabre Tales for more than one player, there are also some optional rules for doing that too.

One of the aspects of the game which is oft-talked about is its unusual central game mechanic which uses dominoes rather than dice as the mechanism by which the outcome of a challenge is determined. [And in case there’s any confusion whatsoever, we’re talking here about dominos the game pieces … not anything to do with pizza, although I guess you could eat pizza while playing too :-)]

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Each adventure specifically has a classic three-act structure and the game mechanics function slightly differently in each of the acts (to simulate the rising danger as the horror unfolds). When things get truly pulse-pounding the game’s “tension scene” mechanic kicks in delivering a short and suspenseful piece of action during which things can get more deadly again.

You can read a much more detailed description of the intriguing mechanics of Macabre Tales, as well as the features of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction which inspired them, in this essay penned by Cynthia herself.

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In addition to their genre emulation of Lovecraft’s universe, Cynthia’s company also produces other games which aim to faithfully recreate other fictional genres: Superheroes, 1980s Action Cartoons, Slasher Movies, and (coming this year) 1970s Sci-Fi. You can find out more at Spectrum Games’ website or Facebook page.

Cthulhu Reborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Cynthia: The publication of Call of Cthulhu has to be considered the most important milestone, at least in my mind. That is the point where roleplaying and Lovecraft truly and fully melded into one tentacle-laden abomination. While other games may have contained some Lovecraftian entities and monsters, it wasn’t until CoC that an entire game focused on bringing H.P. Lovecraft’s lore to life. So, to me, that was the milestone.

sott-tremulus-logoAside from that, there have certainly been milestones of note, though mostly in terms of devising new ways to translate HPL’s work to tabletop gaming (e.g., Trail of Cthulhu’s ingenious use of clues and Tremulus story-driven approach, etc.). For so long, the RPG industry was content with mostly allowing CoC to be the final word in Lovecraftian roleplaying. In recent years, designers/companies have taken it upon themselves to add their own voices to the mix by releasing new Lovecraftian RPGs and I think that’s fantastic!

As for missteps, well, that’s a tough call. At the risk of seeming non-committal, I don’t feel that there have been any missteps of note. The way I see it, every designer has his or her own vision of what Lovecraftian roleplaying should be all about – whether it’s simply staying within context of HPL’s tales or adding major twists to the whole shebang (mechs, for example). There’s no right or wrong in this, so I can’t really say any of these things could be classified as a misstep.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Cynthia: The fact that such a tiny niche within a niche is still thriving and growing exponentially proves, as far as I’m concerned, that the mini-industry is doing a lot of things right. For starters, a ton of Lovecraftian RPG material can easily be found, which is a huge plus. Another plus is that new material is being churned out every month. This persistence can only serve to keep Lovecraftian gaming alive.

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What could be done better? I would like to see more non-CoC Lovecraftian RPGs on store shelves. Many gamers (especially the more casual gamers who don’t haunt RPG websites) think that CoC is the only RPG of this nature and that, to me, is a shame. Not that CoC is a bad game or anything; it’s just that people should be aware that it’s only one of many options available for those wanting to channel HPL into their gaming activities.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Cynthia: It’s an exciting time right now, because more Lovecraftian games are hitting the market than ever before. Much of this stems from the fact that HPL’s work is becoming increasingly well known in popular media, creating more of a demand for such products.

I feel that designers are really asking themselves how to best translate Lovecraft’s style into game mechanics. This is certainly something I’ve noticed and I can’t stress enough how happy that makes me. It’s this line of thinking that leads to innovation.

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Cynthia: The relatively recent surge of Lovecraft-based RPG products has a dark side. Many of these products are well thought out, laboriously researched and worthwhile products. However, as with anything, there has been a regrettable portion of less-than-stellar material being released. This is the nature of the beast, given that nearly anyone can publish products, due to crowdfunding, print-on-demand and PDF technology. The challenge publishers and designers face is to make their work stand out and thus rise to the top of the heap.

Image: Phil Slattery’s Art of Horror (wordpress)

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

sott-One-Shot-LogoCynthia: I would like to see a stronger emphasis on one-shot adventures rather than campaigns. I’m of the opinion that campaigns go directly against Lovecraft’s philosophy that humans are insignificant in the grand scheme of the cosmos. In his tales, the protagonists just weren’t that important. We weren’t meant to empathize with them and, in truth, they were little more than plot devices used so that the reader could experience these horrific concepts and entities. In a campaign situation, the spotlight is, by necessity, on the protagonists. It’s a chronicle of their continued exploits and I don’t think it conveys the Lovecraftian themes as well as one-shots do.

CR: Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

sott-giant-cthulhu-diceCynthia: With time becoming more and more of a precious commodity these days, I can see a move toward games that require little preparation – fast character creation, modular plot seeds, fast resolution, etc. In fact, this trend has already started to take hold. If pen-and-paper RPGs are to thoroughly prosper in the future, I believe this is the route that needs to be taken. In a day and age where someone can just sit down at a computer and immerse themselves in an MMORPG with zero prep time, we need to be able to follow suit, at least to some degree.

sott-cthulhufishAm I saying that MMORPGs are going to spell doom for tabletop roleplaying? Not at all. They are still two very different experiences. It’s like saying that hotdogs and hamburgers can’t co-exist. What I am saying is that we as an industry/hobby have to continue to evolve… and I think we are. If we stagnate and lose touch with the times, things could go very sour. Fortunately, I don’t see that happening.

CR: Thanks Cynthia for coming along to chat about the future of Lovecraftian gaming!


A Second Lash at: Dan Harms

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Of all the interviews we have run so far in the “State of the Tenacle” series, probably the one we have received the most feedback about is our chat with Dan Harms, renowned expert on all things Cthulhu Mythos. Spurred on by that interest, we were very eager to get Dan back in the interview seat for a couple more questions. We were lucky enough to grab a little bit of his time the other day … but there were so many questions we wanted to ask that we couldn’t pick just two. He is, after all, an interesting guy to quiz . . .

CR: You mention the Chaosium Monograph line as a “mis-step”, at least in its current form. Could you elaborate a little on what you think does and doesn’t work about this line … and can you see any way the monograph publishing system could work better?

Dan: When I say the monograph line is a “mis-step,” mind you, I’m basing it on what monographs I have read,  the reactions I’ve heard to the others, and my creative philosophy.  Maybe they make a good amount of money, and if so they’re a success from a business perspective.

In my experience, you should believe in what you’re creating, if you’re an author, an illustrator, a publisher, or a programmer.  That’s not to say it’s not possible to get by without it, especially if you’re talented, but bringing that perspective to a project always leads to its improvement.  When you’re just putting a product on paper and shipping it out, without really getting behind it, people will start becoming skeptical about that line as a whole.

To me, the place for a monograph series is between what you believe in and what can be marketed.  For example, someone could write a wonderful Gaslight sourcebook for Buffalo, New York.  No matter how great it is, it’ll always be a product appealing to a very small niche, which makes it suitable as a small-scale Print On Demand book rather than a general release.  If the sales reveal some interest, then the book can be expanded and published on a broader scale.

I do think there are products in the monograph line that meet my criteria – off the top of my head, Machine Tractor Station Kharkov 37, The Abbey, and The Parapsychologist’s Handbook.  It also includes those that simply don’t.

CR: You make the distinction between true innovation and simply “applying window-dressing” to the familiar genre conventions. Do you have any thoughts on ways that a designer might approach the development of a genuinely innocative product line? Do you need to completely throw out or challenge entrenched gaming stereotypes? Go back to literary sources to mine for other narrative voices?

Dan: I think to work with Lovecraft, you have to get back to his writing and accept its viewpoint as a baseline.  That means getting beyond the trappings and asking what the story says about the universe itself.  For example, Pathfinder includes Mythos creatures among its monsters.  Fighting them is probably fun, but their presence doesn’t equate to a Lovecraftian game.

Now, that doesn’t mean accepting an indifferent cosmos, necessarily; after all, Lovecraft’s tales of Randolph Carter are certainly not about that.  Yet if you’re not letting Lovecraft set the vision on a fundamental level, you either have a bunch of ideas thrown together because they’re neat, or you let the other elements set the tone, at which point you’re back to using the Mythos as a monster manual.

Does that mean we’re committed to rehashing Lovecraft again and again?  Certainly not.  The next question is how the genre, or the characters within it, act within that setting.  Both Delta Green and Bookhounds [of London] do that well, with Delta Green working to answer why the characters fight the Mythos, and Bookhounds asking whether it isn’t so bad every so often to make a pound or two off those terrors.  Some answers are easier than others – it’d be much easier to write Lovecraftian noir than Lovecraftian pulp or four-color superheroics – but that’s not to say it couldn’t be done.

I’d also encourage authors to think of this from a campaign perspective – how does that tone come through when the initial novelty of the setting wears off?

CR: One thing that featured heavily in early Call of Cthulhu products, but which has largely disappeared is gaming material themed around travelling to otherworldly or “Mythos” locations. Why do you think that exotic locales for Cthulhuoid adventuring have gradually been replaced by scenarios set in more mundane places, and is there a case for revisiting some of those outre places?

Dan: Why we don’t see more alien settings in Cthulhu games? They’re really hard to write about.  I wrote a chapter for Fury of Yig that used a classic HPL location as the setting.  Going in, I realized that I had to knock that chapter out of the park, or that I had to let it go.  It has to be genuinely unnerving and alien and significant to the plot, and that can be quite tough.  If other writers feel the same way, I’m not surprised they’ve decided to take their writing elsewhere.

image: brezelberg on deviantart

CR: You have a significant professional background in one of the themes that turn up frequently in Lovecraft’s fiction: old books.  How well do you think existing Lovecraftian RPGs embrace the way “eldritch tomes” are used in Mythos fiction? Have you ever tried anything different in your own gaming to better capture the Lovecraftian fascination with research?

Dan: Tomes are used very differently in Mythos stories than in the games.  In the works of Lovecraft and other authors, these books are treated as sources of information.  In Call of Cthulhu, they are rewards, insofar as they provide the Cthulhu Mythos skill and spells after the events of the session are over.   In addition, the adventures and campaigns have not been built to take them into account.  Even in a gripping long-term campaign like Masks [of Nyarlathotep], reading the tomes you find doesn’t tell you anything directly useful to your investigations.

A clear sign that this is a problem are the changes in the rules to get past it.  Back in the day, people would write scenarios with notes like, “Oh, most books take long periods of time to read, but this one only takes 24 hours.”  Later we got rules about skimming and reducing tome reading times, all of which are attempts to mitigate how those rules work.

My quick survey of the other Lovecraftian RPGs on my shelf (and it’s not a complete collection, I should add) is that everyone else treats them the same way, if not in terms of time, then in terms of benefits.  I think this is a major detriment, as it really makes tomes optional to the course of play.  You lose the element of characters saying, “The knowledge in these books is dangerous – but knowing it could be crucial to our struggles!”

Then, of course, you have Keepers who want to keep tomes and spells away from characters because it might make them too powerful.  I suppose you could do that.  In terms of genre emulation, it’s like deciding that soldier characters in a modern battlefield game shouldn’t have grenades and machine guns because they might derail the plot.

If you want to get a good idea of how I think tomes should be treated in games, I’d suggest picking up The Unspeakable Oath 21 and looking at Bret Kramer’s article on “Saucer Attack 1928!”  The tome is Bret’s inspiration, but the format comes from our discussions about how books should be used in the game.  Fury of Yig, when it appears, should give some examples of how they can be placed into a game.

I don’t know if the rules for handling tomes need to be more complex, necessarily, but it would be better if they or the scenarios were geared to encourage a player to behave like a character in a Lovecraft story.

CR: Dan … thanks so much for coming back and offering another great set of answers! Our tentacles are in your debt …


State of the Tentacle: Oscar Rios

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For our sixth interview in the State of the Tentacle series, we are very excited to be speaking with one of Call of Cthulhu‘s hardest-working and prolific writers of recent years, Oscar Rios. Heck, in terms of the total volume of superb scenario material he has produced, he is likely one of the game’s most prolific writers of all time. Couple that with the fact that unlike most writers, Oscar hasn’t been content to concentrate his writing on just one favourite game setting … instead he has written material for just about every setting that has ever been published. His work appears in an impressive array of different scenario collections. He also represents the major success-story of Chaosium’s (sometime’s maligned) Monograph series, having contributed to many of the most popular titles in that line.

With all that wealth of diverse experience, Oscar was someone we were very eager to quiz about the future of Lovecraftian gaming. Invictus Logo btransFortunately for us, we caught him just as his gladiatorial chariot hit a pot-hole in the Via Appia, and in a stunned daze he was unable to escape our clutches. What transpired appears below.

Introduction

Oscar Rios is an author of horror fiction and role playing scenarios for the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Since 2002 he has written sixty three (and counting) Call of Cthulhu scenarios, and has written for nearly every historical era possible. He’s written five monographs for Chaosium, including Ripples from Carcosa and The Ravenar Saga. His scenarios appear in various Chaosium monograph collections, including every Halloween themed one produced to date. Oscar has a scenario in Chaosium’s latest publication, Atomic Age Cthulhu. His work has appeared in The Unspeakable Oath, Worlds of Cthulhu and Independent Roleplaying Magazine (IRM).

Oscar began working for Miskatonic River Press, as a staff writer and editor. His scenarios appear in MRP’s offerings More Adventures in Arkham Country, New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, Lux in Tenebras and the upcoming Tales of the Sleepless City. He is the author of The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, a Miskatonic River Press campaign for Cthulhu Invictus that in some ways put the Roman era on the map as a seriously supported setting for Call of Cthulhu .

In addition to his gaming work, Oscar has branched out into the realm of Lovecraftian fiction, with short stories in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, Horror for the Holidays, and the upcoming collections Undead and Unbound and Cthulhu’s Dark Cults II. He has also further branched out into the world of Fantasy RPG’s, writing A Faceless Enemy for Chapter 13 Press, as part of Tales From the Fallen Empire: Post-Apocalyptic Sword and Sorcery Setting for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (coming soon).

On the strength of his unassailable reputation as a writer of excellent Invictus-era adventures for Call of Cthulhu, he was recently invited to become the first “new face” to join the team writing additional material for Chaosium’s 2nd edition of the classic campaign, Horror on the Orient Express. Impressed with the awesomeness of his Roman prequel chapter (Sanguis Omnia Vincet), the Orient Express folks invited him back to write another (non-Roman) chapter for the campaign, entitled Bread or Stone.

At his core Oscar remains an avid gamer, running and playing Call of Cthulhu whenever possible.

Cthulhu Reborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Oscar: Strangely enough some of the milestones and mis-steps are one and the same. Every time something went “wrong” it opened up new opportunities. Some of those opportunities carried Lovecraftian Roleplaying in new directions. These sped up the evolution of Cosmic Horror RPG’s.

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Chaosium’s monograph program offered new authors a chance to get their work out there. Those products allowed the voices of new authors to be heard. Some of those books weren’t well received by fans for various reasons. Those instances likely caused a lot of harm to the new authors’ careers in particular and Mythos gaming in general. Other books were warmly received by the fans and established a solid foundation for several new authors to build upon.

Another milestone would have to be the publication of the epic campaigns, such as Horror on the Orient Express and the Beyond the Mountains of Madness. These were audacious project that became legendary among the fans. The publication of the setting books, such as Kingsport and Arkham, helped the average Keeper turn his occasional horror game into real campaigns. Expanding Mythos Gaming into other historical eras, like modern times, the 1890’s, the Dark Ages and the time of the Roman Empire gave greater depth to the genre.

Key missteps… I think too many people consider Cosmic Horror RPG’s as a throw away art form. Not enough care is taken with regards to historical accuracy, editing and proof reading, play testing, layout and product development. Books also come out far too infrequently, with some sitting in limbo for years or even decades. Then, when a product is released, there’s this huge expectation that it’ll be wonderful, because so much time has gone by since the last book came out. If it turns out the book isn’t wonderful, whoa boy… I love CoC fans, I am a HUGE CoC fan myself, but we can be brutal with our opinions at times.

And you know… The collectable card game fiasco. I won’t go there, that horse won’t get any deader if I join my colleagues in beating on it.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

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Oscar: There isn’t one type of Call of Cthulhu fan, there are many. There are the X-File investigators, the two-fisted pulp investigators, the survival horror guys and the grim old school purists who like short lives, shattered minds and spectacular deaths. Most fans shift between several of these types, depending on their mood. I think most of the new publishers have realized this and are putting out products directed at a target fan type. Since the fans shift between types, they’ll purchase products from this company AND that one, depending on what the Keeper wants to run and the sort of players they have. There is enough room in Cosmic Horror RPG’s for everyone to do well.

What could all these companies do better? Well, they could put out more products. When a fan hears about a great book, sees an amazing cover, and gets all excited that the product will be out in four months everything is cool. When a year or two goes by and that book still isn’t out that fan is no longer excited. They might not even be interested anymore. Hell, it’s possible they don’t even remember the project or if they do their angry about it. Some of these have become almost Urban Legends within the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Want to start a heated discussion among a group of CoC players, just say “Hey, Pulp Cthulhu [A Chaosium project “delayed” by over a decade – CR], what’s up with that?” and watch the sparks fly. Bad things happen; it’s not a perfect universe, I get that. I’ve been on both sides of this, as a publisher and a fan. I’ve been a victim of it and I’ve been guilty of doing it. When you tell people a book should be out on X-day… and then X-day +2 years later that book isn’t out… well, that sucks. It happens.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Oscar: The Cthulhu Mythos has always been a shared universe, since the early days of the Lovecraft Circle. Now, Lovecraftian RPG’s are becoming the same way. You can get players on three different continents investigating a scenario over Skype, recording it and putting it on a podcast.

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You can get authors, artists and publishers from all over the world brainstorming together to produce truly amazing things. Authors who produced some of the golden age classic scenarios and campaigns are back writing new material. Newer authors are working on projects with them. New publishers are adding their voices and visions to the genre.

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There’s a new energy and a lot of new material is being produced. Some of it is going to be great; some of it is going to be crap; and everyone will disagree on which is which. And that’s FINE! What’s shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPG’s? Everyone is! What is that direction? A 365 degree outward expansion. It’s a great time to be a fan of Lovecraftian RPG.

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

sott-i-hate-ia-iaOscar: If I had to pick three words, they would be Courtesy, Professionalism and Postage. I’ll get to the last one in a minute. When a bad product comes out the fans take it as a personal slight. They spent money on this and take their disappointment to the Internet, spitting venom and frustration in their statuses and on message boards. Is that fair? Who should we feel for? The company that put out a less-than-perfect product or the disgruntled fan lashing out? I will say that both sides are in the wrong.

We, as an industry and a fan base, can do better than this. More care needs to be given to these projects by various publishers. Fans need to understand that it is impossible to please everyone and their disappointment doesn’t give them a “licence to kill” on the Internet. The same goes for those working together on projects within the industry as well. We can all treat one another with a little more respect. Again, I am not perfect nor innocent of any of the things I’ve just mentioned. However, I am trying to do better. I want fans to be happy, but I know no matter what anyone does you can’t please everyone. I am trying to be a better colleague to my industry brothers and sisters as well.

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And so we come to my last obstacle, Postage. If a great book comes out in one country of course fans in other countries will want it. The fans are very connected because the Internet makes the entire planet feel like a small village. But these fans live in many different countries, some of which are separated by oceans and rest on far off continents.

sott-usps-boxSo, these fans try to order the book and what happens? Suddenly they realize they’ll have to pay MORE to get the book shipped to them than the book actually costs. That sucks. If that book is damaged while being shipped of course they’ll want a new one mailed out to them. They’ll expect the publisher to send them one and eat the shipping costs. So that cost the publisher, many of whom are now small independent licensees, an entire new book plus the wildly expensive shipping. This soon becomes such a spiralling pit of financial loss that international fans and small publishers simply can’t afford to support one another. I wish I had a solution but I don’t.

Yes, I know about PDF’s… but physical books… call me old school but I hate running a scenario off my laptop. No I don’t want to print 100+ pages off my printer.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Round Wax Seal - Elder SignOscar: I would like to see all the companies, both parent and licensee, communicate and coordinate in the support of all the established eras. This way every year or two there would be at least one book out for each of the major settings; a new Dark Ages book, an new Invictus Book, a new Gaslight book, A new Modern Era book, maybe even support for Old West, Far Future and Colonial Eras. All of these setting are wonderful and deserve support. No matter how much fans love them and play them, if they aren’t supported they’ll die. The industry has planted an amazing orchard of Cosmic Horror Gaming settings; we need to start watering all those trees with scenario collections, campaigns and settings.

CR:Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

Oscar: I’ve often been criticized for being a Mythos writer who has hope for mankind. When I look into the future I see what I want to see, much like someone failing a Sanity Roll AND the following INT check. So here it goes –

I see Del Toro getting a green light for At The Mountains of Madness because of the success of Pacific Rim. At The Mountains of Madness does for Mythos Horror what The Lord of the Rings did for Fantasy. The way everyone knows what Hobbits are now, people will know what a Shoggoth, Mi-Go and The Great Race of Yith are. They start picking out just which of their friends have the Innsmouth Look. Mythos Horror explodes in popularity and people like us all grumble saying “We loved H.P. Lovecraft before it was cool”.

What will that mean for the hobby? It will be more popular than ever, crossing over into high budget video games, motion pictures, MMRPG’s and cable TV mini-series. Yeah, maybe even some mock reality shows like the Real Housewives of Arkham or Innsmouth Shore… hehehehehehe

(He is suddenly tackled by men in white coats and dragged off screaming)

No wait, it’ll happen! Really! Just wait! I’m not insane, I’m Not INSANE!

CR: Thanks Oscar! Are you willing to stick around to answer a few more questions?

Oscar: OK


A Second Lash at: Stuart Boon

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A few weeks back we interviewed Stuart Boon, line director of Cubicle 7’s Cthulhu Britannica line and award-winning writer of Shadows Over Scotland. Lots of folks seem to have enjoyed reading Stuart’s comments, so we thought we would invite him back to answer a couple more questions . . .

CR: One of the most praised aspects of Shadows Over Scotland is the way it tackles presenting source material in a informative, exhaustive but also more entertaining way than many of the Cthulhu location books from recent history. Did you have any particular approach or methodology you applied to writing those sections of the book? Were there any particular sources of inspiration that helped in creating an innovative presentation of sourcebook material?

Stuart: My intention with writing Shadows Over Scotland was always to write the book ‘for Keepers’ — that is, to write for an audience that is looking to acquire and make use of detailed, informative, and evocative source material, but who also want to be entertained in the process. These days it is easy enough to dial up information on people, places, events, etc. in Wikipedia or the like, so I personally don’t think it is enough for sourcebooks to be mere repositories of information. That said, a lot of sourcebooks I own and have read are written solely to disseminate information and care little for engaging readers. When the opportunity to write Shadows came up, I planned from the beginning to write a book that had the material (e.g. histories, events, local knowledge, etc.), but that would situate it within a larger story (that of a Mythos-infused Scotland in the 1920s) and emphasise atmosphere and drama over sheer quantity of information. So, from the get-go, I was very conscious of writing a book that would be entertaining, and hopefully inspirational, for Keepers.

In terms of my own inspiration, I’ve been certainly influenced by all the early Call of Cthulhu writers and designers (e.g. Keith Herber, Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis, etc.), but more particularly by H.P. Lovecraft himself who wrote wonderfully verbose and detailed stories full of tension, atmosphere, and verisimilitude. Much of Lovecraft’s style can be transposed to writing source material, if you think about it, but for me what matters most in terms of presentation is thinking carefully about your purpose and your audience. Everything else should fall into place after that.

CR: Why do you think there is such a vast difference between the production standards applied to recent European Cthulhu editions (French, German, Spanish) and those produced for the English Language? Do those publishers just have bigger art budgets, or a buying public that will pay at a higher price point for quality products, or are they just more creative at applying their art budget to produce more beautiful results?

Stuart: Hmm, that’s a hard question to answer from a desk in Scotland. It would be fascinating to get an answer from the French, Spanish, and German designers themselves. For one, however, I suspect there is a very different approach to production design in those European editions. I think the European design houses have tapped into the fact that the relatively small, but very loyal Call of Cthulhu fan base is willing, and has the disposable income, to purchase prestige products.

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So, to answer your question, I think they are designed differently from English publications at the outset. They may well have different approaches to the use of art, but I think what drives them is their ability to produce attractive, specialised products for a targeted audience. They may well be selling lower numbers, but making a modest profit and the final products that we’ve seen so far have been truly spectacular. I can see little reason why such an approach could not be adopted by an English language publisher, but no one as yet has made the effort.

CR: Thanks for allowing yourself to be dragged back by Cthulhu’s tentacles for a second round. Best of luck on the First Aid and Psychoanalysis rolls 🙂


State of the Tentacle: Graham Walmsley

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Cthulhu Reborn is pleased to welcome Graham Walmsley as our fifth interviewee in the “State of the Tentacle” series. Graham kindly agreed to drop by our dimly-lit half-forgotten headquarters high on a Wooded Hill overgrown with trees unnaturally thick. And if it sounds like that is a description lifted from Graham’s own book Stealing Cthulhu — well, that’s just a coincidence.

Stealing CthulhuWhen we were formulating a dream list of people to interview, Graham was one of the first entries … Although he has only been writing for Lovecraftian RPGs for a few years, he has already left quite an impression in terms of creating a manifestly different type of roleplaying experience which is distinctly more “Lovecrafty” than almost anything that has gone before. Protagonists in his scenarios are just that more certainly doomed than in most scenarios — and the horrors they face are just that bit more elusive and “unknowable” in the same way that many of the finer details of the supernatural manifestations in Lovecraft’s tales were never properly explained. This is really what the Trail of Cthulhu creators were thinking when they coined the term “purist.”

We figured that with such a fresh and innovative take on translating Mythos to the gaming table, Graham was sure to have some interesting things to say about the future of Lovecraftian gaming. As you’ll see below … we were right.

Introduction

sott-play-unsafeBy way of introductions … Graham is the author of the much-acclaimed (and insanely useful) Stealing Cthulhu, a guide to Lovecraftian storytelling in games. He is also the creator of the free, rules-light system Cthulhu Dark which has been garnering significant attention among gamers intrigued by its simplicity and deadliness. He has written many products for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu and has also written for Cubicle 7’s The Laundry.

Graham is passionate about self-publishing: as well as Stealing Cthulhu and Cthulhu Dark, he wrote and published the storytelling guide Play Unsafe and the murder mystery game A Taste For Murder.

Graham’s work is regularly nominated for awards and, last year, won a Gold Ennie award.

CthulhuReborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Graham: First, there was Call of Cthulhu, the game I grew up with, which scared me. And then, honestly, I lost touch for a few years. All I remember was this scary, scary game.

When I got back into gaming, I was most interested in smaller games. So I liked Malcolm Craig’s Cold City, which doesn’t explicitly reference Lovecraft, but has soldiers fighting tentacled monsters in Berlin. And I liked Jared Sorensen’s Unspeakable, a Lovecraftian investigation game, in which you make up the horror as you go along. And other horror games like Dread and Dead of Night.

If you’ve played those games, you’ll know how different they are from Call of Cthulhu or other traditional games. Not better, just different. And I think they show that you can do horror games in a new way.

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Five years ago, there was Trail of Cthulhu. That did two things: it gave Ken Hite’s take on the Mythos, which was utterly beautiful, making the creatures unknowable and twisted; and it specified a “Purist” style of play. I think that was important. It gave the idea that Cthulhu games needn’t be about shooting cultists: they could be about incomphrensible, insoluble horror.

Since then, there’s been a mini-explosion in Cthulhu games: CthulhuTech, Realms of Cthulhu, my own Cthulhu Dark. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. On the negative side, it’s become a bandwagon. On the positive side, there are lots of games, each offering their own take on Lovecraftian gaming.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Graham: Man. I hate talking about the industry. When we talk about the industry, we tend to focus on the bigger companies and the products they’re releasing. But, for me, that’s not where the interesting stuff is coming from.

sott-lamentations-of-the-flame-princessFor me, the interesting stuff comes from smaller publishers. For example, James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess has some great Mythos stuff in it.

Even more interesting is the stuff that comes from Keepers and players. For example, I’m excited about Scott Dorward’s scenarios, which he runs at conventions in the UK. And I’m excited about the stuff Terry Romero is doing with Cthulhu games in the States.

So, to answer your question: what’s the industry doing well? It’s doing well at a grassroots level. Keepers are producing great stuff, small publishers are producing great stuff. What could the industry do better? Engage with that grassroots stuff.

Let me give you an example. One of my favourite publications, at the moment, is Arc Dream’s The Unspeakable Oath. It’s a magazine that contains adventure seeds, scenarios and other things related to Lovecraftian games. What makes it so good? Everything is written by writers who genuinely care about what they’re writing. (Here’s what doesn’t happen: The Oath invents a theme; writers pitch scenario based on that theme; the Oath pays writers to write those scenarios. Instead, writers are writing what they want to write, which is what makes it so good.)

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now? What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

sott-jim-phillips-Legs-coverGraham: It’s easier to publish that it’s ever been. That means: it’s easier to publish Cthulhu stuff than it has ever been. And services like Kickstarter make it even easier. This is all good.

What I see, at the moment, is a groundswell of people publishing their own stuff. Often, it’s as good as the products produced by bigger companies. Often, it’s better: because they love what they’re publishing, people playtest it more, research it more, polish it more.

For me, that’s where we’re going. It’s a world of little, innovative home-produced products. I’m excited.

So where does that leave the bigger companies? In some ways, they’re getting more innovative. Pelgrane Press are working with individual writers to produce a range of strange and creative scenarios (Jason Morningstar’s The Black Drop, Bill White’s The Big Hoodoo, Robin Laws’ The Repairer of Reputations). Cubicle 7 are building product lines around British folktales and World War II. And we’ll see what happens with Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, but I’m excited that two long-standing British Keepers are writing it.

In some ways, however, the things published today aren’t innovative. They resemble the things published twenty or thirty years ago. I’d like more innovation.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Graham: Let’s see. I’m tempted to reply in generalisations, but that’s dull. It’s more fun if I tell you exactly what I think the major product lines should do. Let’s do that.

  • sott-MULA-logoCall of Cthulhu: I’d like an explosion of new monographs, in which up-and-coming writers cover new historical eras and aspects of the occult. In particular, I’d like monographs that don’t take a British or American perspective. For example, I’d love an Indian monograph written from the point of view of Indian people, rather than Westerners.
  • Trail of Cthulhu: I’d like to see a new edition, which shakes up the GUMSHOE system, keeping the best bits and tweaking the rest to make it even better. Meanwhile, I’d like them to keep working with writers and publishing exciting stuff.
  • Delta Green: I’m looking forward to the new edition. For me, the most exciting thing about Delta Green is that it’s a military setting. I’d like them to use more military history, with stories from soldiers and support staff we haven’t heard before.
  • Cthulhu Dark: I’m planning to publish a Cthulhu Dark rulebook. In addition, I’d like people to use Cthulhu Dark to publish their own scenarios and sourcebooks. As above, I’m especially interested in non-Western perspectives. Or at least stories and settings we haven’t heard before.

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CR: What do you mean, non-Western perspectives?

sott-moplah-prisonersGraham: Most Cthulhu material has focussed on Brits and Americans. Even when a product focusses on a foreign country, it takes a British or American perspective. (It’s usually British for Gaslight material, American for later material).

This is both a problem and an opportunity. It’s a problem, because we only hear a Western perspective. It’s like nobody else exists. It’s also a problem because it tends to romanticise history. There were some deeply problematic things happening in the 1890s and 1920s (which I won’t spell out for you). We don’t hear about them.

sott-victorian-mud-larkSo, I’d like to hear the stories we don’t normally hear. More widely, I’d like to hear stories about people we don’t usually hear. We hear a lot about Victorian gentlemen, but not about Victorian market traders, Victorian mistresses or Victorian mudlarks, even though their stories are probably more interesting.

And it’s an opportunity, because there are so many more stories to tell. I want to hear stories we haven’t heard before, from people we don’t usually hear from.

CR: Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

Graham: There’ll be more small publishers, more exciting new scenarios and more focus on horror that’s close to Lovecraft but not Lovecraft. Poe? M R James? Stephen King? Thomas Ligotti? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

CR:Us too! Thanks for your time, Graham! I’m sure that there’s a whole range of things you’ve mentioned that readers might want to quiz you further on. Are you willing to come back to answer a couple more questions?

Graham: OK.


State of the Tentacle: Dan Harms

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Here at Cthulhu Reborn we are most delighted to welcome Dan Harms. While some folks may claim that they “wrote the book on the Cthulhu Mythos,” Dan is probably one of only a handful of people for who that is literally true. His Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia (which has gone by several titles under the hands of different publishers, see below) is universally referred to as the only comprehensive summary of the decades of creative collaboration that has led to today’s melange we call the “Cthulhu Mythos.”

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Both because of his all-encompassing 90+ Cthulhu Mythos skill and also because he has been a contributor to the pages of Lovecraftian RPG magazines for over 17 years we are incredibly excited that Dan has agreed to come along and share his views about the past, present and future of Lovecraftian gaming.

Introduction

Dan Harms, noted expert on the Cthulhu Mythos and in particular the dread Necronomicon, has one unique characteristic possessed by no other authority interviewed to date on this blog: he is dead. Well, at least if that most esteemed academic source known as UseNet is to be believed. For, in a most grave and solemn press release issued on 18 August 2001 beneath the byline “NECRONOMICON EXPERT BRUTALLY SLAIN, SCHOLAR WOUNDED” a most heinous happening was recounted. It would appear that during a panel session at the NecronomiCON convention of that fateful year an unknown gunman predated upon panel members shortly after a shock announcement that one panelist had finally unearthed an extant copy of the TRUE Necronomicon. By my reckoning, that makes Dan well over a decade in the grave. The fact that this has not lessened but actually accelerated his mission to spread information far and wide about the Cthulhu Mythos speaks volumes about the true aims of the forces that wait BEYOND.

Of course we may be wrong about some of that.

sott - The-Necronomicon-Files-9781578632695In a less spectral sense, however, there is no doubt about the fact that Dan has been a leading authority on the Cthulhu Mythos since the first release of the Encyclopedia Cthulhiana by Chaosium in 1994. This exhaustive volume, much referred to as the canonical source of information about the Mythos, has been through a couple of subsequent editions and is now titled The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia: A Guide to H.P. Lovecraft’s Universe (Elder Sign Press). It was recently re-released (with surprisingly little fanfare) for the first time as an e-book. Dan also co-wrote a scholarly volume in 1998 entitled The Necronomicon Files which gathers together a wealth of real-world historical information to deliver what has been called “the Necronomicon debunker’s bible,” soundly proving once-and-for-all that Lovecraft’s fictional creation is just that.

In additional to publishing scholarly treatises, Dan has also been an active writer and collaborator in both the analysis of Lovecraft’s fiction and in extrapolating his ideas into new and interesting material for Lovecraftian roleplaying games. The former resulted in the somewhat extensive series of discussion threads “The Shadow Over UseNet” in which most Lovecraft tales came under the knife. Dan’s gaming writing has graced the pages of several key periodicals many of which he has also edited. These include The Unspeakable Oath (old and new incarnations), The Black Seal and Worlds of Cthulhu. The last of these featured a series of articles describing Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne as a detailed and imaginative setting for Dark Ages Cthulhu.

sott - Diggin' Up The WorldDan also has gaming material written and awaiting release with multiple Call of Cthulhu publishers. These include contributions to the soon-to-be-released Tales of the Sleepless City (Miskatonic River Press) and the much-awaited line of Colonial Lovecraft books by Sixtystone Press. Dan also has two books primarily written by him awaiting publication by Sixtystone (Ghouls: Eaters of the Dead and Fury of Yig). A preview scenario from the former of these is available for FREE over on DrivethruRPG.

In real-life, Dan Harms is a writer and librarian.

As with all of the interviews in the “State of the Tentacle” series, all opinions expressed here are Dan’s and are not necessarily shared by any of the companies he has worked for (Chaosium, Miskatonic River Press, Sixtystone Press, and the Unspeakable Oath).

CthulhuReborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Dan: Milestones: The creation of Call of Cthulhu itself, the Lovecraft Country line of books, Delta Green, Cthulhu Live, and Trail of Cthulhu.

Mis-steps: Globe spanning campaigns in the line of Indiana Jones for a system that doesn’t support Jones-style play, the monograph line. Even those, however, still have resulted in some great offerings.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Dan: There’s certainly a great deal of material out there for Cthulhu gaming – more than I can keep track of – so that’s much in its favour.

I think that our biggest challenge is to stop confusing the creation of new settings, or mashing up Lovecraft with another genre, with innovation. Much of what I’m seeing seems to spring from someone saying, “Boy, wouldn’t it be fun to play a game/scenario set on a remote geographical location, or in an alternate future, or with mechs!” Those games can be fun, but they don’t try anything different, and I’m not sure how much interest they inspire after the novelty factor has worn off.

That’s not to say that such settings can’t be innovative. Both Dark Ages and the Averoigne setting in Worlds [of Cthulhu] (which I was a part of) tried to achieve that, with limited success. Delta Green does a good job, but I’m not sure how much people really pick up on that. Bookhounds of London is an excellent example – it’s not just set in London in the Thirties, it carries with it a new perspective from which the characters operate.

That is not to say that innovation is necessary for fun, of course, or that it’s common in any genre. Nevertheless, I’d like to see more projects that take Lovecraft’s vision and transform it in interesting ways.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Dan: The growth of attention to Lovecraft and his creations in the horror, science fiction, and mainstream communities (this is good and bad, especially when it comes to Mythos humour). The acknowledgment that Lovecraft is in the public domain. The continued desire to create new games, and the widespread availability of the tools for one individual to take an RPG to start from conception through distribution.

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Dan: The large number of people writing for the game, as opposed to the small number of people publishing it. Most of the publishers I know are pretty much one-man operations, and that can often lead to bottlenecks of production, cash flow problems, burnout, etc. Combine this with an RPG reading public that wants something that is an accurate historical work, an art book, a solid piece of technical writing, and suitable for an evening’s entertainment – oh, and some of them are going to download a torrented copy “just to see if they want to buy it” – and you’ve got a tremendous amount of work for very little return.

sott - Sixtystone and MRP logos

I’m also concerned about accessibility. For example, let’s take Call of Cthulhu. Let’s assume that the new player has read Lovecraft, and is familiar with the relatively simple system. It’s set in the Twenties, so that becomes another aspect of understanding. It’s often not clear as to why your characters want to investigate this horrific Thing, or why they’d want to come back and do it again. If you think of it in terms of other media, your characters are too fragile for the game to be comparable to a TV show, but hardy enough that it’s not like a horror movie, either. And if you’re running the game, it’s even more complex, in terms of how to manage all of these.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Dan: All of the stuff coming out from the publishers with whom I’m working, for starters. After that, it might be nice to see more support for either campaign play, or one-shot adventures set up like horror movies. I enjoy playing in different eras, but I agree with Sandy Petersen that the best setting is modern.

CR: Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

Dan: Not much, I’m afraid. Even the best material I’ve read hasn’t done much to change the overall trajectory of the genre, and I doubt it will. At least there’ll be more fun stuff to read and enjoy.

CR: Are you happy to field an additional question or two on the topic of Lovecraftian gaming?

Dan: OK


A Second Lash at: Brian Sammons

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A couple of weeks ago we published our interview with Brian Sammons, one of the foremost authors writing for Call of Cthulhu today. Response to this published interview was enormous, greatly exceeding our expectations. One thing that several folks suggested was that it would be great if, in light of his erudite comments, we could quiz Brian with a couple of followup questions. Hide though he may try, Mr Sammons doesn’t have Spot Hidden enough to elude us … so we tracked him down for a second visit from “State of the Tentacle.” Here’s what happened:

CthulhuReborn: Welcome back … ready for another couple of questions?

BrianS: OK.

CR: One thing that featured heavily in early Call of Cthulhu products, but which has largely disappeared is gaming material themed around travelling to otherworldly or “Mythos” locations. Why do you think that exotic locales for Cthulhuoid adventuring have gradually been replaced by scenarios set in more mundane places, and is there a case for revisiting some of those outre places?

BrianS: Good question. I have no idea. Maybe because all the good otherworldly or strange places have already been done? Maybe because people want to make things more “real” or they think people just relate to such places easier? I guess doing that could shift the feeling of the game more towards horror at the expense of the fantasy or sci-fi elements that were also part of some of Lovecraft’s stories. Maybe it’s just because no one has been thinking of good ideas to go along with those cool places? Occasionally they will still get some mention and focus in a game. I did a scenario set in Irem for the upcoming Chaosium book; Houses of R’lyeh, but honestly, the majority of stuff I have done has also been set in real world locations. Here’s hoping that more of those exotic and terrifying locales get some love in future releases.

CR: How much priority do you think publishers of Lovecraftian roleplaying games should put on recruiting new gamers to the hobby? Any thoughts on what might make such games more attractive to new people?

BrianS: I think makers of all RPGs need to try their best to recruit new blood for the hobby, so Lovecraftian games should be no different. The RPG community seems to be shrinking dramatically, at least to me. The last GenCon I went to was noticeably smaller than the one I went to before that some years back. Around where I live there used to be 5 RPG game/comic book shops within driving distance. Now only one remains. Sure, I guess online retail is killing a lot of brick and mortar stores regardless of what they’re selling, but it seems especially evident when it comes to RPG games. Then there’s this: when you go to a RPG-centered convention, what’s the average age of those in attendance? If you do have a local shop that sells RPGs and runs games there too, what age are the folks rolling dice? On the RPG forums, how old are most of the members? For my experience, the vast majority of RPG fans I know, know of, or just see are all around my age, plus or minus ten years or so. And I’m not exactly a spring chicken any more.

So all this means to me that sadly, our beloved hobby is dying. Without an infusion of new blood it’s destined to shrink and shrink and shrink. I hope I’m wrong, I don’t like to be that pessimistic towards something I like so much, but there it is. So yeah, RPG game makers should do anything and everything possible to get new people interested in trying out their games. And if you’re a parent of children old enough to understand the basics of role playing, by all means, invite them and their friends to the game table and get them involved. Maybe don’t start them off on Call of Cthulhu, but D&D has been the gateway drug for many a gamer, so start there.

As far as what can RPG companies do to attract new players to their games, that I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does right now. If they did, this wouldn’t be a problem.

CR: Well, you’ve survived two rounds beset by the Flailing Tentacles From Sunken R’lyeh … I guess we’d better let you go. Thanks for your time!


State of the Tentacle: Stuart Boon

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Hot on the heels of our much-read interview with Call of Cthulhu stalwart Brian Sammons CthulhuReborn is delighted to welcome one of the newest stars of that sqamous constellation … Stuart Boon. Many folks would know that Stuart is the author of 2012’s phenomenally-successful (and much awarded) Shadows Over Scotland … and those who have been following closely at home may have noticed that on the strength of that fine tome, he has been given the creative reins of Cubicle 7’s Cthulhu Britannica line. We’re happy to have him along to talk about life, the universe, and Cthulhu Mythos plans to deprive us of both …

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Introduction

Stuart Boon is an interesting fellow … so much so that writing a brief biographical intro to this interview proved to be a little challenging — there are so many intriguing, colourful and possibly spurious rumours about his past that I fear that if ever mankind were to ever piece them all together they would open up such terrifying vistas that we would all wind up fleeing into the merciful arms of a new Dark Age. Well, maybe not … but there are too many entertaining notes to include them all here (although you can click over to this page for an extended version of this bio sketch to see more of them).

sott - Cthulhu-Britannica-FolkloreHailing originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Stuart has been roleplaying since 1978 (when his eldest sister allowed him to draw the maps for her D&D group). He moved to the United Kingdom in 2002 and now lives and works in Scotland with his wife Michele. Shadows Over Scotland was his first gaming publication … but since its publication he has been extraordinarly busy guiding a whole range of books currently in-the-works for release by Cubicle 7 under the Cthulhu Britannica banner. The first fruits of this labour have been the resurrection and substantial rewriting of the previously-announced book Cthulhu Britannica: Folklore, whose physical book release is imminent (the book is already available as a PDF). he is also hard at work on a number of other legacy products for the Cthulhu Britannica line, including the forthcoming (and much-anticipated) London box set.

sott - DHLegacyofFrankenstein_coverNot content with a ridiculous work-load as line developer, Stuart has also written scenarios for publishers Chaosium (Call of Cthulhu), Miskatonic River Press (Call of Cthulhu), Savage Mojo (Savage Worlds), and Sixtystone Press (Call of Cthulhu), among others. In addition to writing for roleplaying games, Stuart dabbles in fiction and most recently has had his short story ‘A Rending Crack Of Thunder’ published in Tales of Promethea, a collection of short fiction inspired by the award-winning, critically acclaimed roleplaying game Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein.

By day, Stuart is a lecturer and educational developer at the University of Strathclyde and, when academic and gaming occasionally meet, acts as a guest lecturer on the subject of writing for roleplaying. In his (now virtually non-existent) spare time, Stuart is an avid film and music fan, an active role-player, and spends entirely too much time indoors. He is currently working on a number of projects involving the Cthulhu Mythos whilst trying to retain what is left of his sanity.

Stuart can be found on Facebook and lurking behind his shockingly infrequently updated blog.

CthulhuReborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

call-of-cthulhu-1st-coverStuart: I think one of the milestones in Lovecraftian roleplaying came along right at the beginning with the design of the first edition of Call of Cthulhu that gave us player characters who are not super-human, not heroes, but just normal, everyday folk. I’ve role-played an alcoholic plumber, a disillusioned and unemployed landscape painter, and a geriatric missionary turned investigative busybody. These are Lovecraftian ‘everymen’ dragged into extraordinary circumstance and facing off against the impossible. That makes for epic and, yes, often tragic, role-playing where our own human insignificance is highlighted against a maddening, alien chaos lurking behind every shadow and ever perpetuated by the ageless, cosmic horrors of the Lovecraftian mythos. Whether the adventure ends in success or in some truly horrible defeat, that distinctly human journey and struggle against the unknown is always entertaining.

A long list of excellent scenarios and campaigns has given us important milestones as well, raising the bar on what Lovecraftian adventure could achieve and aspire to. From Shadows Of Yog-Sothoth to Masks of Nyarlathotep and from the Spawn of Azathoth to Beyond the Mountains of Madness, the campaigns and their stories got bigger, better, and more challenging. I think the fact that Call of Cthulhu has continued to evolve may be seen as another important milestone. Playing a part in that evolution, I don’t think we can underplay the significance of Chaosium licensing to other game publishers and allowing Pagan Publishing, Miskatonic River Press, Cubicle 7 Entertainment, Pelgrane Press, Goodman Games and Sixtystone Press—to name a few—to produce sourcebooks, scenarios, and campaigns for the game.

As it stands now, the Lovecraftian gaming community is wonderfully diverse and continues to put out some amazing products. I think the fact that so many Lovecraftian roleplaying products are winning prestigious awards stands as a testament to the success of the game and its numerous providers. That isn’t to say there haven’t been mis-steps along the way. Every business has its trials and Chaosium has had its fair share. Brian Sammons has already mentioned the Mythos card game, which I suspect is behind a number of problems. In addition a ‘mis-step’ for me would the stagnation and questionable quality brought about by focusing on reprinting past successes and the Miskatonic University Library Association (MULA) monographs, respectively. The concomitant lack of innovation and variability of quality certainly muddied Chaosium’s reputation for a time and provided a low point in Lovecraftian gaming generally.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Stuart: With so many different publishers now in play, one thing we all benefit from is a wealth of opportunities for Lovecraftian roleplaying. There’s so much creativity that we can call on and it impacts so many more aspects of the game. Over the past 30 years, Lovecraftian roleplaying has grown to encompass other eras (e.g. Cthulhu by Gaslight, CthulhuTech, Cthulhu Dark Ages, etc.), other settings (e.g. Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, etc.), and other systems (e.g. Trail of Cthulhu, The Laundry, the upcoming tremulus, etc.). Most publishers are doing well at the moment in focusing on their independent, creative properties and offering players different, rich, and detailed visions on the mythos.

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I think, for the most part, the Lovecraftian roleplaying sector has diversified itself quite well. My own roleplaying sessions frequently jump between classic Call of Cthulhu, The Laundry, and Cthulhu by Gaslight. As long as there is an appetite for this variation then I think we’ll see more and different aspects of Lovecraftian roleplaying emerging. At the moment, it’s a very rich environment for players.

What could be done better? That is a more difficult question, but one small thing that does pop to mind is that the industry could make better use of player input. I think the recent backlash against the proposed 7th Edition of the Call of Cthulhu rules provides a good example of the need for this. I think publishers, designers, and writers would do better to listen to Keepers and players, not just reactively but actively considering players’ interests. I personally find online forums like Yog-Sothoth.com invaluable for keeping in touch with players and gauging how well things are received.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Stuart: At the moment, gaming and geek culture seem to be having something of a golden age and I think Lovecraftian roleplaying is, in part, benefitting from that. In fact, all things Lovecraftian seem to be having a heyday. I’m still hopeful that Guillermo del Toro will get to direct At The Mountains Of Madness! At any rate, I think that this surge of interest combined with a sense of opportunity is driving the sector at the moment. It feels very positive.

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I’m not sure whether or not that surge of interest is translating into lots of new players, but writers and game designers can feel confident that there is a healthy audience for Lovecraftian adventures and source material. And coming back to my earlier point, with more authors and more publishers on tap, we can expect a broader and more varied output across the whole of Lovecraftian roleplaying. With more than 20 products released in 2012 for Call of Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian RPGs, and with so many of them being well received, I think we can look forward to the future full of interesting developments and hopefully more award-winning campaigns and sourcebooks.

sott - superhero-cthulhu-plush-5986And as a footnote here, it is nice to see Lovecraftian board games also benefitting from this growing interest. Lovecraft fans really can’t be disappointed by the amount of Cthulhu-related material and media available. Although personally, I think Cthulhu plush toys and other attempts at Great Old One cuteness are truly unspeakable, but apparently that’s just me!

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Stuart: Competition comes to mind, especially as we occupy such a niche area of horror roleplaying. But personally I think the competition that we see at the moment is very healthy and most companies do seem to be mindful of keeping things original and finding their own dark corner of the niche to work from. A lot of people seem to worry about diversification leading ultimately to a proliferation of indistinguishable or ‘vanilla’ products coming out, but I’m not sure the market is big enough support that kind of thing. I also don’t think the buying public would put up with it.

I see Kickstarter as a potential challenge to the viability/prosperity of the hobby, though I know a lot of people who would disagree with me. I think we haven’t fully seen the impact that Kickstarter will have on local stores, on game publishers, and on individual authors and designers. I may be wrong and it might all be sunshine, but I would be surprised if that was the result. I do question a model that largely removes editorial structures and quality assurance. I know how boring that sounds, but all of the really good scenarios, campaigns, and sourcebooks we love have been vetted by publishers and benefitted from processes designed to ensure that they will be good. Like any tool, I suppose, Kickstarter could be used to create wonderful things or a whole load of dross.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Stuart: Wow. That’s a good question. Two things come to mind—one more generic than the other: first, I would like to see the different systems and eras better supported. I’d certainly like to see more content coming out for Cthulhu by Gaslight and other poor cousins to classic era Call of Cthulhu. We all love the 1920s but there are so many other opportunities for interesting roleplaying. So, yes, I’d like to see more companies—especially the more established providers who can take a chance from time to time—committing to publishing outside the ‘safe’ Jazz age. Plans are afoot to develop numerous new eras (e.g. an Old West and Atomic-Age Cthulhu, for example), and that same hope applies to these new ventures.

Second, and more specifically, I would like to see more game publishers putting out prestige products. Most of us Anglophone players will have gazed with hungry and jealous eyes at the supplements and rulebooks produced by the French, Spanish, and Germans. The Editions Sans-Détour version of Beyond the Mountains of Madness (Par-delà les Montagnes Hallucinées) was mind-bogglingly gorgeous, a stunning piece of art in itself, and a huge success. The recent French and Spanish editions of the Call of Cthulhu rules—L’Appel de Cthulhu and La Llamada de Cthulhu, respectively—are beautiful full-colour versions that put the English rules to shame. I’d love to see the mooted new edition of Call of Cthulhu and the Kickstarted Horror on the Orient Express answering the call and produced to this quality. Well, one can dream…

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CR: Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

Stuart: Ah, I love a bit of divination. Looking positively forward we might see a greater variety of well-supported Lovecraftian roleplaying games turning out great stories and adventures in beautifully laid out books and PDFs that are a pleasure to use and read. Looking forward more negatively we might see local game stores killed off by Amazon with a knock-on effect hitting game publishers hard and possibly a few players having to leave the field. But more realistically, I suspect we will be very much in the same position we are now with most game publishers just getting by and doing their best to satisfy the small but dedicated audience of Lovecraftian role-players. Hopefully we’ll see more award-winning sourcebooks and campaigns, and a new generation of players lining up to do battle with the Great Old Ones.

CR: Stuart … thank’s for your time! Would you be willing to stick around to answer a question or two from the readers?

Stuart: Happy to … count me in!

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